The Titans completed their sweep of the Jaguars in the most 2017 Titans way possible. It was ugly, the offense was infuriating, Kevin Byard made plays, multiple Jags defenders were publicly humiliated, and in the end they found a way to win. That has been the recipe more or less for the 9-7 record and the upcoming playoff appearance that comes with it.
This one is pretty easy to break down. The Titans offense struggled to move the ball against a very good Jaguars defense. Derrick Henry made too many mistakes under the pressure of a full work load and didn’t get enough help from his offensive line. The wide receivers were virtually shut out in the passing game, combining for 4 catches and just 25 yards. Eric Decker dropped three passes, including two that would have been big gains on 3rd down plays. Matthews had a bad 3rd down drop as well. On the plus side, Marcus Mariota played a really nice game despite the raw stats not looking that great and the team limited turnovers outside of the horrific botched hand off.
The defense, on the other hand, was dominant. They held Leonard Fournette to just 3.6 yards per carry and made Blake Bortles look like... well... Blake Bortles. Bortles had his worst game of the year completing just 44% of his passes for a 4.6 yards per attempt average and Kevin Byard picked him off twice. It was the most complete game we’ve seen from the Titans defense in a long time.
At the end of the day it was good enough to get the job done and the Titans are moving on to the postseason.
The Titans run-pass split of 39-24 is a little bit misleading. Out of Mariota’s 10 “carries” on the game, 5 were designed runs, 4 were scrambles on pass plays that broke down and 1 was a kneel down in victory formation at the end of the game. Once you adjust those plays, you get 34 run calls and 28 pass calls. It was obvious that the Titans wanted to run the ball to win this game. While it is easy to call that “same old Titans”, that is really the correct way to approach this game in my opinion. The Jaguars are much better against the pass than they are against the run. When you factor in the freezing weather which makes passing and catching much harder, you have a recipe for a run heavy game.
The gameplan wasn’t an issue to me, but the total confusion on multiple offensive plays was inexcusable in Week 17. It has become clear over the course of this season that the offensive staff is asking players to do things that they are not capable of doing. There is no other explanation. Opposing defensive coordinators have figured out the Titans attack and it’s become clear that Terry Robiskie is out of counter punches. But that’s a conversation for another day.
Let’s start with some of went wrong in the running game on Sunday.
The Titans had real problems blocking the Jaguars safeties when they run blitzed. We’ve discussed all year the tight formations that the coaches love to use and some of the problems with that approach. This is an example of something that has been a problem for them all year. The Jaguars spent the whole game sneaking the strong side safety up between end of the line (or tight end) and the wide receiver on that side and run blitzing with him. This exact thing caused most of the negative run plays in the game and the Titans never seemed to figure out a counter to beat it. You’ll see on this first example Barry Church is aligned about 3-4 yards inside Matthews — who is supposed to block him somehow — at the snap. There is zero chance that he can get there. The Titans have to get out of this play when they see this alignment from Jacksonville.
Here is another example from later in the game. This time it is the other safety, Tashaun Gipson who is lined up inside of Eric Decker. Decker gives it his best effort, but there is no chance this play works once Gipson walks down to the line.
The next one is Davis and Gipson. Same thing. Davis has to at least try to catch his shoulder on the way through to maybe throw him off balance and give Henry a chance, but this call was doomed from the time it was snapped. Davis still needs a lot of work as a blocker, but if one of the best blocking wide receivers in the league (Decker) can’t make this block you can’t reasonably expect a rookie to do it either.
One more time with this look. This was on a 3rd and 2 run and this time Gipson is not on the line of scrimmage, but he’s close and he’s too far inside for Matthews to get to him. Again, a player is being asked to block someone that he physically can’t get to based on alignment.
And before we get to the good stuff, we have to look at the 12 yard loss. Once again, the Titans are running a play that can’t work based on defensive alignment. Myles Jack is lined up on the line of scrimmage with no one to block him. I have watched this play 50 times and can’t figure out what the Titans thought was going to happen here. At first I thought that maybe this play was designed to go left and Henry got mixed up, but watch Ben Jones going to block a linebacker on the second level. He thought this run was going right for sure. Did Stocker and Conklin block the wrong guys? Henry is doing what he can to try to make a play out of nothing and makes it worse. He needs to know better than to start running backwards on a play like this, especially in this part of the field, but this play was going to be a 7 yard loss before Henry even reversed course.
Henry is getting roasted for his performance on Sunday and I understand a lot of it. A guy going in to his 32nd game in this offense should not be struggling to avoid running in to his own quarterback and he absolutely deserves some criticism for his tendency to stop his feet in the backfield when the hole he wants isn’t there. However, these five plays are not on Henry. They’re on coaching in my opinion. When you have plays getting blown up by the same look over and over and over again, you HAVE to adjust. Whether that means telling your wide receivers to adjust their splits a little bit to give them a chance to reach that run blitzing safety or telling Mariota that he has to get out of that run call every time he sees that look pre-snap, something has to be done about it. You can’t allow your guys to keep running in to the buzzsaw like this. The last play where he lost all those yards is a simple count at the line. The Titans had to know that Jack was going to be unblocked. The team is either not giving Mariota enough control to check out of plays like this or he’s doing a poor job of recognizing bad looks from the defense. Whatever is happening, it needs to be corrected. You can’t just give away five plays — that’s almost 10% of our offensive plays on Sunday — and expect to be a good offense.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s look at some of the positives. Henry was actually pretty good in my opinion when he didn’t have a defender meeting him 3 yards in the backfield. This is how the second play that I showed above was supposed to work. Notice that Spain has bumped out to left tackle here to allow the far more athletic Lewan to pull and lead on this play. The Jaguars attack this play the same way they attacked the others with the safety coming up and run blitzing inside of the receiver, but this time Decker does a great job of just barely getting enough of Gipson to take him out of the play and Lewan does a nice job of corralling Jalen Ramsey to give Henry the edge. Jack Conklin does a nice job sneaking up to the second level to slow down Telvin Smith too. Henry makes it all work by getting quickly to the corner and then using his stiff arm to buy more yardage and pick up the first down. Really great execution here, but to me this design is still begging for trouble.
One of my criticisms of Henry in the past has been that he’s been unwilling to run through small holes, instead preferring to bounce outside unless there is a huge chasm to run through. In the NFL, you don’t get giant holes very often, so the best running backs find ways to get skinny through small holes. This isn’t a huge play, but it’s promising to me for Henry’s development. This is a small hole, but instead of bouncing, he sticks it up in there and then fights for extra yardage after contact. We need to see this Henry more often.
Here is another example of what I’d love to see more of from Henry. This is a simple counter lead play. Before we get in to what Henry does well, let’s appreciate some grunt work. First Stocker does a nice job of pinning Ngakoue inside. Then check out Jack Conklin helping Kline and then getting to the second level on Smith. That’s fantastic work from 78 here. You rarely see the same lineman seal both sides of a running lane, but that’s really what he did here. Henry got some help from his line here, but then he shows what he can do with clean feet in the backfield. He presses the hole and then shows great quickness with his cut to get vertical and runs right through Posluszny’s tackle attempt for a big gain. He even picks up an extra five yards after Church makes first contact.
Finally, we can’t talk about Henry without showing his 66-yard touchdown catch. You can see that the formation looks pretty similar to the one that the Titans ran that read option with Mariota out of, except instead of Decker as the H-back, it’s Delanie Walker. The Titans fake the read dive to Henry and then throw the screen to him with Spain, Jones, and Kline out front leading the way. The funny thing is that the Jaguars didn’t really bite that hard on the fake, but rather the Titans execution was just perfect. Henry does a great job of following the excellent blocks by the line and then make A.J. Bouye look awful in the open field before turning on the jets and taking it to the house.
The most encouraging thing about the Titans offense against Jacksonville was the play of Marcus Mariota and the fact that the team seemed to turn him loose as a runner for the first time since the Cincinnati game. The Titans offense is a completely different beast when Mariota’s designed runs are in the playbook. Their best offensive performances (at JAX, vs SEA, vs BAL, and vs CIN) came in games when that aspect was heavily featured in the game plan.
This read play was one of the Titans best calls in the playbook early in the season and I’m glad to see it back. Calais Campbell bites hard on the dive to Henry and Mariota gets a good block from Jonnu Smith and a really good lead block from Eric Decker (which leaves A.J. Bouye with a fresh grass stain on the back of his jersey) to spring him for a nice gain. This run could have gone for much more if the turf monster doesn’t get him, but this is a good call and good execution from the offense.
Here is the same play call a second time. This time Bouye does a better job of keeping contain, but Smith and Decker’s blocks create a huge alley for Mariota. In fact, if Lewan gets a clean seal on Jack here, this play may go for 6 as I’m not sure Church has the speed or the angle to get Mariota if he gets through clean. Nevertheless, this is another really nice gain.
Here is Mariota with another read option keeper. This is from the Titans final drive of the game, just a few plays before the big scramble and stiff arm that all but sealed it. Again, this is the exact same play call as the two above, but this time Telvin Smith (#50) has seen it and recognizes it. However, a great block by Decker keeps him from blowing up the play and allows Mariota a crease to get up field. He then shrugs off a tackle from Malik Jackson and picks up a big first down. Great individual effort here from Mariota and a hat tip to Decker for his job on Smith there. Decker had a tough game catching the ball — yes I know that’s kind of important for a receiver — but he really played a great game outside of that. I’d love to have him back next season.
While we are on the subject of Decker, let’s take a quick look at two of the three big drops he had in this one. This is the biggest one. Its a 3rd and 17 situation and the Titans are trying to run their inside receivers in to a hole between the linebackers and safeties. However, Calais Campbell pushes Josh Kline back in to Mariota’s lap and he’s forced to pull the ball down and escape. Decker, meanwhile, does a good job of continuing to work to get open and finds himself all alone behind the Jaguars defense. Mariota finds him, but Myles Jack’s pressure forces him to throw the ball falling away and it comes up short of where he wanted it. However Decker still has a chance to catch this as it hits him in the chest on his way to the ground. If Mariota releases this ball just a little sooner it may be a touchdown, but either way Decker has to come up with this catch.
The next one is maybe even worse. This time its 3rd and 3. The Titans are expecting man coverage from Jacksonville and they get it. They run a rub route to the trips side with Decker running a wheel up the far sideline. This is a really tough throw they are asking Mariota to make here, but he drops a dime right in Decker’s bread basket, but he’s not able to come up with the catch. It’s not easy to catch footballs in 20 degree weather, but these two drops were particularly bad on Sunday.
Overall, Mariota played an excellent game on Sunday. If Decker and Matthews hold on to a couple big 3rd down conversion opportunities, the stat line probably tells a very different story at the end of the game. If you add the four drops back to his stat line (and the yardage they would have gained) you end up with a 16 of 21 for about 210 yards on the day. That’s before we even worry about the missed defensive holding calls the Jaguars got away with all day, including a blatant one in the end zone on a Delanie Walker corner route. And, of course, he also gave us this moment.
The Titans defense was simply dominant on Sunday. Yes, it’s Blake Bortles and he certainly had some classic Bortles moments in this game, but the Titans defense played outstanding throughout regardless of opposing quarterback.
Let’s start with the run defense. The Titans struggled in Week 16 against Todd Gurley — having two starting inside linebackers with the flu certainly didn’t help — but they bounced back to their usual run-stuffing ways against Jacksonville. Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard have been simply outstanding against the run all season. They currently rank 6th and 13th, respectively, among all linebackers in run defense per PFF. They both played well again on Sunday, but they also got a lot of help from their teammates up front.
I thought this was one of Austin Johnson’s best games as a Titan. Here he is highlighted pre-snap. He does an outstanding job of setting anchor and not giving up ground against a double team block and that allows Williamson to step right in to the hole unblocked and make the play on Fournette.
Here he does a picture perfect job of gap control against a zone run look from the Jags. He stacks his man at the line of scrimmage and then squeezes him right down in to the hole. This is really good stuff and frankly he looked almost exactly like DaQuan Jones for much of this game and that’s a good thing for the Titans.
Karl Klug had a really good game as well. Here is the most impressive play from him. Watch him take the Jaguars tackle and throw him in to Fournette’s path. Pretty good from a guy who is mainly known as a pass rush specialist.
The pass rush was consistently able to move Blake Bortles off his spot and disrupt timing in the Jaguars passing game. Brian Orakpo, in particular was a menace for left tackle Josh Wells. Here, Orakpo is lined up in a wide-9 technique which is fairly rare for the Titans defense, but it showed up a few times this week. He’s able to get by Wells pretty quickly using a hesitation-rip combo and very nearly gets a strip sack on Bortles after he steps up in the pocket. The pressure causes this throw to be high and nearly picked off.
Orakpo was in the backfield ALL game and he was rewarded with a sack on this play. This is a 2nd and 10 play in the 4th quarter with the score 15-10 in favor of the Titans. Orakpo lines up as a standup joker in the middle of the line while Austin Johnson lines up wide. Those two run a perfectly timed stunt game off each other and Bortles drifts at the top of his drop right in to Orakpo’s path for a big sack in a crucial spot in the game. Austin Johnson’s role on this stunt shouldn’t be overlooked. He does a great job of not tipping his hand too early and perfectly times his inside move to pick off the guard.
Pressure directly influenced Bortles’ first pick. Both Derrick Morgan and Jurrell Casey were closing in and Bortles opted for the ol’ chuck ‘n’ duck rather than taking a sure sack. The resulting wobbly pass was so bad that Kevin Byard looked like he was fielding a punt.
Byard gets the headlines for the two picks, but the cornerback play is what I was most impressed with from the Titans secondary on Sunday. Check out the coverage from the Titans corners on this 3rd and 4. You’ve got Tye Smith at the bottom of the screen, Logan Ryan in the slot, and Adoree Jackson up top. Woodyard is covering the tight end and then Jayon Brown slides out to cover the back out of the backfield. There is nowhere for Bortles to go with this ball and eventually the pass rush forces him to move and he fires an incomplete pass towards a well-covered receiver.
Adoree Jackson had his best game as a corner. Not only was he sticky with receivers on deeper routes — something he’s been good at all year — but he also showed progress on the route that has really caused him the most trouble this year: the quick slant. Here he is covering Dede Westbrook and he times his break perfectly and makes a great play on the ball to break up what would have been a first down completion.
Of course the biggest play of the game from Jackson was actually on a completed slant, but he not only closed well and would have stopped this 1st and 10 play for just a 4 yard gain, but he manages to punch the ball out from behind to create a huge turnover right before the half and give his team 3 extra points. While the rookie corner has yet to get his first interception he has gotten his hands on the ball quite often, racking up 17 passes defensed (good for a tie for 10th best in the NFL) and 3 forced fumbles (tied for 12th in the NFL). It is only a matter of time before he gets his first pick. Jackson has been outstanding.
All of the Titans corners played well in this game. Jackson was the most impactful and the return of Logan Ryan was a welcome sight. But those are the guys we’ve come to expect to be good. The Titans also seem to have found something in Tye Smith who was very good for a second straight week replacing the injured LeShaun Sims (though he was beat on that deep pass that Westbrook dropped). We even got a handful of Kalan Reed snaps and he made a real impact with those. He was targeted on this crucial 3rd down on the edge of the red zone in coverage against Allen Hurns and made an outstanding play to disrupt the route and break up the pass. Reed flashed a lot during this preseason and I’m still very intrigued by him as a prospect.